Hope springs for Google Web Toolkit

Google's onetime Java-to-JavaScript wonder tool may see new life, thanks to a looming update

Google Web Toolkit, once highly touted as a development technology, may be poised to re-emerge from the shadows.

The open source toolkit first appeared nearly a decade ago to much fanfare over its promise of enabling Java developers to build browser-based JavaScript applications in Java. The GWT SDK features core Java APIs and widgets for developing applications, which are then compiled to JavaScript.

But the project has not received an upgrade since November 2014, when version 2.7 came out, leaving some to wonder whether the promise of Java-to-JavaScript no longer holds the appeal it once had and if GWT-based projects have been relegated to maintenance mode.

But for GWT enthusiasts, and those newly interested in the idea of writing JavaScript applications in Java, there is hope, as a 2.8.0 upgrade to GWT could be imminent.

GWT, which was originally developed at Google, has been maintained by a steering committee since Google handed over the reins in June 2012. The committee published a release candidate at the tail end of July, following a beta version offered last December.

As release candidates tend to be the final stage before a general software release, insights into the trajectory of GWT 2.8.0 can be gleaned, although issuance of multiple release candidates prior to general release is not unheard of. The latest GWT release candidate features partial support for Java 8 standard library APIs and fixes a memory leak with Java 8 compilation. The compiler updates JavaScript-reserved keywords to the ECMAScript 6 specification underlying JavaScript, approved in 2015.

But recent efforts by InfoWorld to contact Google and steering committee members about GWT's status and trajectory have yielded near silence.

“Perhaps we can wait a bit until GWT 2.8 is final,” Google’s Bhaskar Janakiraman said. “We've just released the release candidate with a whole host of new features that will provide context for the next generation of GWT-related products.”

Steering committee members we contacted either deferred to others or did not respond.

GWT, which was the subject of its own technical conference, GWT.create, as recently as January 2015, still has numerous advocates, an ongoing Google Groups discussion forum shows. Proponents have expressed frustration with delays in the 2.8 release.

“I’m a dedicated GWT user,” one developer wrote. “I have substantial projects soon to be released. I don't see GWT going anywhere as there is nothing that provides what GWT does, which is to be able to write powerful Web clients using code written in a popular language with great tool support."

Another developer speculated that efforts are simply being devoted to the Angular.js JavaScript framework and not GWT: “One can understand that the amount of resources behind Angular are far superior to those behind GWT.”

This potential shift in resources from GWT to Angular.js would not be surprising, given the wild popularity of the search giant’s Angular framework. It's also possible that rising acceptance of JavaScript among developers has eclipsed much of the need for a Java-to-JavaScript tool, as evidenced by JavaScript's continual popularity on ratings indexes. Compared to Java, JavaScript also holds its own in the job market. A search on IT jobs site Dice.com this week finds 17,354 jobs related to Java and 11,912 jobs for JavaScript.

Of course, Java remains a language of choice in the business world, making the enterprise the most plausible wheelhouse for GWT in the future.

As for that future, a recent presentation by mobile tools developer Sencha at the QCon conference in New York cited the Java-to-Closure (J2CL) compiler as the “future of GWT.”

Suffice to say, GWT is at a crossroads. Whether GWT’s time has come and gone could be known soon for certain, when the 2.8.0 release arrives and developers either start downloading or dismissing it.

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Paul Krill

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